The Sisqo story begins in Baltimore, where he was born (with the given name Mark Andrews) Nov. 9, 1978. Raised by an electrician father and a mother who worked as a Social Security administrator, the singer first showed a precocious talent around the age of 5, when he began singing in the gospel choir at a local church. Musically, Sisqo’s early tastes ran toward R&B pop icons such as the Jackson 5 (especially Michael) and more modern R&B vocal outfits such as Jodeci. As a youth he was arrested three times for minor infractions â twice for fighting, and once for taking a pager to school â but by most accounts, he was nurtured in a family environment that was staunchly middle-class.
Sisqo’s singing ambitions took serious hold around the age of 14, when he met schoolmates James (Woody) Green, Tamir (Nokio) Ruffin, and Larry (Jazz) Anthony and formed a vocal group. While spending a summer together working at the Fudgery in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the four teenagers sharpened their harmony skills and entertained customers at the facility with impromptu performances. Eventually adopting the moniker Dru Hill (a name derived from the Druid Hill Park neighborhood in East Baltimore), the four soon generated a buzz on local radio. It was also during this time that Sisqo fathered a daughter â named Shaione â with his then-girlfriend.
Word of Dru Hill’s talents quickly spread beyond Baltimore, and in 1995, the group obtained an audition with Hiriam Hicks, who was president of Island Black Music at the time. Duly impressed, Hicks signed the band members and took them into the studio to record “Tell Me,” a song he had been working on for the soundtrack to the feature film Eddie. Released in August 1996, “Tell Me” proved to be the sort of breakthrough hit artists dream about, reaching the top five on the R&B charts and eventually going gold. The band followed up the single in November of that year with its self-titled debut album, which went on to sell more than a million copies.
Though each member of Dru Hill brought unique talents to the group, Sisqo quickly established himself as its most charismatic figure. Sporting gold hair, a tattooed torso, and a cache of dance moves reminiscent of Michael Jackson, the singer also emerged as an avatar of quirky street fashion. Sharing concert bills with the likes of Puff Daddy and Mary J. Blige, Dru Hill undertook a world tour in 1998 that was highlighted by an invitation to perform at a birthday celebration for South African President Nelson Mandela. By year’s end, the group had garnered five Billboard Music awards, two Soul Train awards, an NAACP Image award, and had received nominations for two American Music awards.
Barely pausing for breath, Dru Hill released its second album, Enter the Dru, in October 1998. Borrowing its title from the Bruce Lee film classic Enter the Dragon (and unveiling an alter ego adopted by Sisqo, who began insisting that a dragon appear on all his stage clothes), the CD reached double-platinum status (2 million in sales) by May 1999. An ardent fan of the quartet, actor-singer Will Smith, recruited the group to guest-star in the video for the Wild Wild West theme song. Foreshadowing changes to come, Smith also invited Sisqo (sans the other members of Dru Hill) to join him onstage during a performance of “Wild Wild West” at the 1999 Grammy Award ceremony.
Though clearly on the brink of massive stardom, Dru Hill surprised fans and industry insiders by undergoing a massive restructuring near the end of 1999. Triggered by Woody’s desire to return to his gospel roots, the members of the group decided to go their separate ways, at least temporarily. To that end, Woody, Jazz, Nokio, and Sisqo signed a new multi-album deal with Def Soul (Def Jam’s R&B imprint) that called for solo albums to be released by each member of the band. Informally dubbed “The Dru World Order,” the arrangement also specified that Sisqo and his bandmates would reunite in early 2001 to record another Dru Hill album.
In the wake of this restructuring, Sisqo wasted no time launching his solo career. Defending the Dru Hill breakup to the press (“We realized that throughout history â¦ nobody really cared what [groups] did after their third album,” he told USA Today in a typical comment), Sisqo released Unleash the Dragon in November 1999. Co-produced and co-written almost entirely by Sisqo, the CD featured material that was more pop-oriented and up-tempo than Dru Hill’s ballad-heavy R&B. Fueled by the frenetic MTV favorite “Got to Get It,” the album achieved impressive sales from the start, but it was the racy “Thong Song” that propelled the CD to No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts. Dubbed “the official anthem of Spring Break 2000” by MTV, the song quickly became the most-played video on the network, which helped to send Unleash the Dragon to multi-platinum status.